On July 13th, a UAE tanker, sailing under a Panama flag “disappeared” in the Persian Gulf. Immediately after its signal vanished, the US blamed the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Tracking data shows an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates traveling through the Strait of Hormuz drifted off into Iranian waters and stopped transmitting its location over two days ago, the AP reported on July 17th.
The 58-meter (190-foot) Riah typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. However, something happened to the vessel, according to tracking data.
The AP cited an anonymous UAE official who said that the tanker had sent no distress call.
AP cited Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv who said that the tanker hadn’t switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE.
“That is a red flag,” Raja said.
An unnamed US defense official later told the AP that the Riah was in Iranian territorial waters near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.
“We certainly have suspicions that it was taken,” the official said. “Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility. But the longer there is a period of no contact … it’s going to be a concern.”
CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbarra Starr tweeted the following, based on anonymous intelligence sources:
“US intel increasingly believes UAE tanker MT RIAH forced into Iranian waters over the weekend by #IRGC naval forces. UAE isn’t talking.
Some Gulf sources say ship simply broke down/towed by Iran. US says tho no contact with crew. Last location Qesham Island.”
The ship’s registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, told the AP it had sold the ship to another company called Mouj Al-Bahar. A man who answered a telephone number registered to the firm told the AP it didn’t own any ships.
Iranian IRNA news agency cited Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi who said that based on the international regulations, after receiving their request for help, Iranian forces went to the site and the foreign tanker was towed by an emergency towing vessel toward Iranian waters for repairing process.
The Jerusalem Post reported a summary of various reports on the US reaction, which is mostly based on anonymous sources:
“US officials believe that the Panama flagged tanker M/I RIAH was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on Saturday night, when it was crossing the Strait of Hormuz in international waters. Information from the US intelligence agency indicated that the IRGC troops forced the tanker to enter Iranian territorial waters before withdrawing the vessel to Iran’s Qeshm Island.”
At the same time, the JPost reported on some alleged speculation by US officials:
“Some US intelligence officials believe that the seizure of the tanker comes as a response to Panama’s declaration that it will withdraw its flags on ships that violate US sanctions against Iran.”
Days earlier, British Royal Marines seized a giant Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar for trying to take oil to Syria in violation of US sanctions.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to voice “its very strong objection to the illegal and unacceptable seizure” of its ship.
London said the British Heritage tanker operated by oil company BP had been approached in the strait, the main outlet for Middle Eastern oil.
“HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away,” a British government spokesman said in a statement. It urged Iran to “de-escalate the situation in the region.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed as “worthless” the allegation that Iran sought to block the ship.
On July 16th, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country would retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil. The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar over suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions, an operation Khamenei called “piracy” in a televised speech.